Former homeless addict-turned-professor wins national acclaim

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – Eric Weissman spent 10 years starting in his mid-20s as a booze and cocaine-addicted couch surfer in Toronto who sometimes slept outside.

On Tuesday, the 53-yearold sociology professor received a national award for a PhD study on homelessness drawn in part from what he has called his own disaster.

Weissman got the 2014 Distinguished Dissertation Award from the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies. It recognized his 13-year multimedia project comparing government housing with shanty towns and other communities set up by homeless residents in Toronto’s former tent city and in the U.S.

“I come from a good background but I ended up becoming incapable of looking

after myself,” he said of his descent from a well paid university graduate to an addict on welfare.

He was 33 when his older sister, Andrea Weissman-Daniels, found him still sleeping at one o’clock one afternoon and convinced him to get help.

It took stints in detox, treatment centres and fullon rehab before Weissman cleaned up. Key to his recovery was an Ontario government-funded transitional housing program, he said.

He had access to counsellors, group therapy and structure.

“That’s the kind of thing some people need.”

Soon after Weissman got his own life back on track, he began filming the stories of people he got to know in Toronto’s tent city. The waterfront community sprang up on the edge of the harbour in the winter of 1998 and existed until about 125 residents were evicted in September 2002.

Weissman made a film shown as part of an exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum that ultimately helped him get back to his long abandoned PhD ambitions. He entered Concordia University in Montreal and studied shanty towns and other communities set up by homeless residents in Oregon and Texas.

A central question he poses in his ongoing research is whether there’s a place in Canada for such housing alternatives.

“If we’re not going to commit the money to taking people literally off the streets and putting them into housing then, for at least the next 20 years, there’s going to be a group of people on the streets at all times,” said Weissman, who teaches at the College of New Caledonia in Prince George, B.C.

“What room is there for these alternative spaces? That’s what I ask.”

Weissman also stresses the need for mental health supports, especially since community services that were meant to replace defunct institutions haven’t kept pace with need.

“Most of the people on the streets that I meet need support and they need housing. You can’t get better without either, and they don’t have them.”

Stephen Gaetz, a professor at York University in Toronto and director of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, echoed that thought.

“We need to do things differently,” he said in an interview. “We need to focus on preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place. And just as importantly, we need to have models of accommodations and supports to move people out of homelessness as quickly as possible.”

Shelters and other emergency-style approaches can exacerbate mental illness and addiction issues that rack up police, corrections and health costs, Gaetz said.

Rather than insist a person prove they’re ready for housing, it makes more sense to first provide that security, he added.

“That approach must be built around a system of care where the services are integrated and we help people move forward with their lives.”

At least 30,000 Canadians are homeless on any given night while many more are considered among “the hidden homeless” who rely on friends or relatives for shelter, according to “The State of Homelessness in Canada 2013.” The report was compiled by the Canadian Homelessness Research Network and the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness.

Weissman said more affordable housing is crucial along with a more humane approach for those who won’t easily fit into one program or another.

“Some people are so damaged you can’t expect them to come back into the world the way you and I would approach it. It’s just not fair.”